Martin Heinrich

Marty Heinrich

Director, Consulting Services | CGI Federal

Thomas Edison knew a thing or two about innovation. But for all his prodigious output (1,093 patents!), his approach was purely pragmatic: “The value of an idea,” he said, “lies in the using of it.”

Rare is the federal agency CIO that doesn’t have innovation at or near the top of the priority list—and for good reason. The effects of innovation are almost always salutary: better use of resources (people, budget, data, technology), and a better experience for employees and customers.

The innovation imperative

Furthermore, innovation is not a choice in today’s fast-changing world, but an obligation imposed by external conditions or events. Everyone is demanding more digital services. Agency employees and members of the public want the same kind of user experience from the government as they get from their banks. Meanwhile, technology providers frequently end support for legacy systems, increasing risk and pressuring agencies to modernize. All of these combine to make innovation a core competency for any organization.

However, today’s federal agency CIO is besieged with competing and urgent priorities – cybersecurity, staff retention and recruiting, budgeting, political pressures and legacy modernization, to name a few. Not for nothing is it claimed that the toughest CIO job is that of a federal CIO, where, according to Gartner, more than half are challenged by the stubborn prevalence of siloed strategies and decision-making.

Where is the time for the pursuits that fuel innovation—reflection, study, inspiration, blue-skying with peers or partners to create something new and better? What about innovation’s risks—the potential for failure or instability that comes with change?

History demonstrates over and over that not innovating courts a greater danger. Blockbuster was a brilliantly run video rental company that dominated its market until it rested on its laurels while emerging competitors were embracing new ideas. Kodak counted on its worldwide domination in camera film to protect it from digital-driven competitors. Countless unions have seen jobs disappear when they resist adapting to changing conditions.

Inertia, the enemy of innovation

Therein lie powerful impediments to innovation: those long-standing rituals and routines that stifle the imperative to innovate. The tyranny of what has always worked before. Automating an existing process rather than stepping back to examine the process for its relevance. Employees who are comfortable in their day-to-day activities, proud of their performance and resistant to changing. The challenge of recruiting people skilled in emerging technologies. The resulting inertia is the enemy of innovation. Fear that major change could destabilize the organization in unanticipated ways.

Keep expectations reasonable

A valuable option is to align expectations with the type of work at hand. Innovations that revolutionize an entire sector (think rideshare services Uber and Lyft), or that change our whole way of life forever (electric light, the telephone) —those will always be rare and largely outside the scope of the federal agency’s mission. In any case, Operations and Maintenance (O&M) is not a likely place for glamorous inventions but it is ever rife with opportunities for seemingly mundane improvements that can deliver outsized benefits or keep things running smoothly without a massive outlay.

A tool that automates the laborious but critical process of reporting unliquidated obligations (ULOs), for example, can provide greater accuracy, free up experienced workers to focus on higher-level efforts and ease the need to hire more people. A “save now, complete later” feature for members of the public filling out long forms on government web sites vastly improves the user experience and increases the likelihood that users will shift from paper to online. Other examples might include applications that use Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning to help understand satellite images and return data for further analysis and visualization, robotic automation to simplify and accelerate essential business processes or natural language processing that uses speech recognition and translation to analyze and act on natural language communications.

What they lack in elegance, they more than compensate for in utility and user satisfaction.

Collaborating with motivated partners

Also valuable is a collaborative approach: “Let us see if there’s a better way to do it.” That simple sentence is the starting point for innovation. The first two words are critical—“let us” together look at it, so that we clearly understand your challenge and your objective before we propose a solution, rather than showing up with a preconceived solution that might work for somebody but woefully underserves you.

Also, let’s see first what’s out there already and see if we can improve on it for you. That was, according to one historian, Edison’s genius: “[T]aking a new technology that someone else had pioneered and developing a superior way of doing it.”

Partners with a track record for targeted innovations, a mindset for continuous improvement and the incentive to help solve your problem—that’s your innovation trifecta.

Equally important is looking to industry as potential partners who are setting new standards for emerging technology—standards, if adopted by government, could result in better, faster and cheaper outcomes. That will take proactive action because government/industry collaboration, while increasing, is still not a naturally occurring act. Adopting industry standards also means being agile and flexible enough to quickly adopt a promising new technology as commercial entities tend to do, rather than rigidly staying on course and putting off the innovation for a year or more, as some federal agencies have tended to do.

Innovate with the end in mind

The “better way of doing it” can have many permutations. If your problem is productivity, an innovation that cuts costs misses the mark. What is the challenge that you can best solve with innovation? Maybe your analysts are pressing you to get better data to them faster. You may have legacy systems with security vulnerabilities. You may need to lower your risk profile.

Clarifying the precise objective ensures that the innovation will solve the challenge you are facing. Each objective calls for different improvements, and the wrong development wastes precious resources, time and credibility.

Cultivate continuous improvement

There will never be an end to the need for innovation, whether revolutionary inventions or modest improvements. That requires a culture of innovation that rewards well-intended failures, recognizing that failure is a great teacher.

It also requires a high degree of pragmatism about what is good enough. A solution that solves 80% of a problem is a success. Demanding a 100% solution sacrifices the benefits you could be gaining from the 80% solution, and is usually not a realistic aspiration. Perfect is the enemy of the good.

However, coming up with good solutions doesn’t naturally entrain the organizational change needed. For innovation to take root, engage employees and create success—organizational change management (OCM) provides the tools. OCM enables the organization to reach a common vision regarding the change, its leaders to communicate the vision and the value of the change, and employees to understand their new roles, activities and success factors.

CGI’s model for innovation

At CGI, innovation and continuous improvement is in our DNA—it is everyone’s job. Our innovation model for incubating new and emerging technologies to solve business problems—from ideation, through proof of concept, approval, and transition to production—has been proven in federal agencies.

CGI’s innovation incubation model enables clients to achieve multiple benefits besides adopting new technology. By minimizing and mitigating risk and supporting OCM, user adoption and training, it removes obstacles for leaders who desire innovation. It creates breakthroughs in customer experience and business transformation, ultimately enabling the realization of an agency’s IT modernization strategy.

For information on how CGI can support your agency’s innovation journey, learn more here.

Read part two of this series

About this author

Martin Heinrich

Marty Heinrich

Director, Consulting Services | CGI Federal

Marty Heinrich is a strategist and management consultant with more than 20 years of experience delivering mission-critical business solutions to government and commercial organizations.